Book Expo is a massive event. The floor is crowded with publishers hawking their wares. There’s acres and acres of books. It’s quite an operation really. But whether intentionally or by design, the folks behind the Expo are making it pretty tough to cover this event, especially if you’re a blogger. As Sarah and Ed have mentioned, there is almost no Internet access. Supposedly you can pay $5 an hour for wireless access, or the incredible price of $50 for the day. Everyone is subject to this charge, even those who have press passes. There is a press room (which is where I am right now), but there’s no wireless access there either. Instead there’s three computers with signs posted above them that say “Please limit your time to 15 minutes when others are waiting.” It makes it hard to blog, is all.
All over Book Expo America, the country's largest book industry trade show, were signs of the major trends in publishing and bookselling. Environmentalism was the order of the day, and everywhere I went there were signs of the industry "going green." At the American Booksellers Association's annual Day of Education, Ed Begley Jr. gave the keynote address on how he's shaped his and his family's life around notions of conservation, and how independent businesses, particularly indie bookstores, carry on the rich tradition of independent thinking in America. Amy Goodman, host of Democracy Now, followed this with a luncheon address that stressed the independent bookselling community's importance as a bastion of intellectual and political freedom. This set the stage nicely for ABA's major new initiative.Hours later, the ABA made the long-awaited announcement that Book Sense is no more. It has been replaced by IndieBound, a hipper, younger brand that will attempt to involve independent businesses of every ilk - from independent bookstores to independent dry cleaners to... well, you get the point. I think most everyone would agree that Book Sense had served its purpose and needed reinvigoration. Whereas Book Sense hoped to present a unified front of indies in the face of competition from Borders, Barnes and Noble, and Amazon, IndieBound represents an effort to return to the idea of the neighborhood bookstore and the importance of shopping locally. While the initiative definitely has its share of skeptics (I don't particularly see how it will help bookstores compete in the online marketplace), it is an infinitely better brand than Book Sense. If the locavore movement can gain traction, maybe this can, as well.Having BEA in LA was something of a mixed blessing. While it was nice to sleep in my own bed at the end of the night, the stress of everyday life added to the stress of being in 24/7 mingle mode can be a bit much. I did my best to partake of the many parties around town, but eventually I ran out of gas. Edan made it to the Skylight Bookstore party, where she ran into Pinky, some cool people from McNally Robinson in NYC (including Jessica from the Written Nerd), Kelly Link and the folks from Small Beer Press. While she was mixing it up there, I went to the Disney Books dinner at Patina. The guest list included some of the major authors in children's and young adult books today: Eoin Colfer, Jonathan Stroud, Kevin Carroll, Ann M. Martin and Brian Selznick, Jon Scieszka and Lane Smith, Dave Berry and Ridley Pearson, Rick Riordan, and Robert F. Kennedy, Jr. At first, I was profoundly uncomfortable, as I seemed to be the only person in the room who didn't have strong opinions on every kids' book published in the last five years, but after a while (and, let's face it, a few drinks) I felt more and more at ease. You might think a kids' book dinner thrown by Disney would be tame. You would be wrong. I didn't go to every dinner at BEA, but I feel safe in saying this was among the raunchiest. Robert Kennedy told a joke about sexual congress between a leprechaun and a penguin. 'Nuff said. I laughed throughout dinner and learned a pretty good amount about the authors as well. The evening ended with me convincing a group of booksellers that it would be a good idea to forgo a cab and take the metro to their hotel. The metro only runs until midnight here in LA, and I was warned several times that if we missed the train and ended up stranded in scenic downtown LA, then I would have sold my last book, so to speak. Thankfully for me, we caught the last train out of downtown and everybody lived to see the trade show the next day.The BEA trade show floor, like most large conferences, can be overwhelming without a plan. Mine was fairly simple - spend Friday in panels and meetings, visiting a couple of priority booths in my spare time, then use Saturday (and Sunday, if absolutely necessary) to see the rest of the show. After attending a meeting on the future of the IndieBound webstore, I ducked in to hear Thomas Friedman's keynote address. He read from his forthcoming book Hot, Flat, and Crowded. While I waited for him to take the stage, I chatted with my neighbor about a Thursday panel I had missed about the future of the e-book. She told me I hadn't missed much, but that Adobe, Palm, Microsoft, and the others had finally agreed on a single format, making it much easier to compete with the Amazon. Friedman's address focused again on environmentalism and America's need to lead the way to finding clean, sustainable sources of energy.After a day of meetings, planned or otherwise (I ran into Nam Le and did a bit of catching up) and a couple of cocktail parties (drinks with Alec Baldwin in support of his book about divorce (Stephen Baldwin was there!), followed by the Ecco Press/Book Soup party at Palihouse, where I drank a sickly sweet champaign cocktail), I was back at BEA early Saturday morning to hit the booths. I put in appearance at McSweeney's, which was easily the least conspicuous booth there. Just Eli Horowitz and Andrew Leland sitting behind a card table. I made the rounds of the major publishers, guided for a brief bit by Mark Sarvas, who happened to be walking the floor with Jim Ruland of Vermin on the Mount. We hit the Grey Wolf Press booth, where I picked up a copy of a new story collection by Jeffrey Renard Allen called Holding Pattern.Rather than laboriously describe each booth and every galley I got (I got too many), I'll just touch on the highlights. It seemed I had something nice to say about every book that Da Capo brought with them - I had positively reviewed Des Wilson's Ghosts at the Table for Publishers Weekly, I had been a long-time vocal advocate of Toby Young's How to Lose Friends and Alienate People, and I've been dying to read David Browne's biography of Sonic Youth, Goodbye 20th Century, of which I snagged a copy. I had a great time talking to Gavin and Jedediah at Small Beer Press, and walked away with a copy of John Kessel's The Baum Plan for Financial Independence. Early on Thursday morning, I'd run into Amy and Janet, two women from Athens, GA who are opening a bookstore there called Avid. They introduced me to Eric and Eliza Jane from Two Dollar Radio, a really cool small press publishing bold, innovative fiction by Rudolph Wurlitzer, Amy Koppelman, and others. I did my usual bit of groveling at the feet of the New York Review of Books, where I thanked them for introducing me to J.F. Powers. They were sweethearts and gave me a pin. At the Tin House booth, I talked up Jim Krusoe's upcoming event at Vroman's, which resulted in me snagging a couple of books, including Krusoe's new Girl Factory and a novel by Adam Braver called November 22, 1963. And finally, as the day wore on and my feet swelled to twice their original size, I spotted somebody in the FSG booth pulling ARCs of Robert Bolano's 2666 out of a box. I grabbed one. It's 912 pages long, weighs several pounds, and looks better than 90% of the paperbacks published this year. On Saturday night, I slept.For a complete rundown of BEA from the bookseller's perspective, check out the Vroman's Bookstore blog.
In the darkened Anglican church, separated from a looming early-Victorian tower by an idyllic garden, we summoned the spirits and welcomed the macabre into our tell-tale hearts.Nestled at the bottom of Grange Park, the city's bustle was a two-minute walk away, but it could have been two-hundred years away as the Luminato arts festival presented "Gothic Toronto: Writing The City Macabre", an evening of six local authors - among them Ann-Marie MacDonald and Andrew Pyper - reading freshly-commissioned works which shone a black light on Toronto's neighborhoods.The spirit of Edgar Allan Poe is everywhere in this year's Luminato festival - this year marking the 200th anniversary of his birth. Earlier in the week, there was another reading of gothic fiction by assorted writers, and an evening with Coraline author Neil Gaiman, reading from his latest - The Graveyard Book. There was also a Poe-inspired cabaret, and "Nevermore" - a Poe-inspired theatre piece.But tonight, as the lights dimmed in St. George the Martyr church, it was all about Toronto-the-sinister. For me, Andrew Pyper's "When You Were Beautiful" dug deepest. Set on a dodgy stretch of Queen Street West, this short tale of memory and loss was spun with equal parts eeriness and sadness.When the evening ended and I was back walking among the mortals, I could swear there was a disembodied voice whispering in my ear, trying to lure me back into the desperate depths where Toronto's darkest souls cry for release.
A crowd representing all ages, income brackets, and nationalities basking in the brilliant comedy of a Hungarian literary genius: isn't this why one moves to the big city? Seduced by movies and periodicals (here Woody Allen and The New Yorker deserve much of the credit and/or blame), I came to New York a few years ago in search of a writer's paradise. What I found more often resembled the galley of a Roman ship - rows of freelancers in the cafes hammering away at their laptops. But every so often, as at last night's Private Lives/Public Lives reading at The Town Hall, the dream city breaks the surface of the everyday.The house seemed a little less packed than it did at this event last year, which may have been a tromp l'oeil brought on by my marginal seats (thanks, PEN!) The draws in 2007 were Steve Martin, Don DeLillo, and Salman Rushdie; this year, the big names included Annie Proulx, Ian McEwan, and Michael Ondaatje. Perhaps the festival organizers should have added George Carlin to the bill to spice things up. The brilliance of the PEN World Voices festival, however, is the chance to encounter new writers from abroad. This year was no different.Among my favorite discoveries last night were the South African writer Rian Malan - whose lovely reading voice has affinities with Ondaatje's - the Mexican poet Coral Bracho - and especially the Hungarian Peter Esterhazy. In what I believe is a new twist, writers read in their first language, with a translation projected onto a screen behind them. I applaud this, in theory; in a festival that prides itself on a global outlook, it seems questionable to force readers into English. That said, the projectionist's manic-depressive speeding-up and slowing-down of the scrolling text added a rather surreal dimension to the evening.Part of what made Esterhazy's and Bracho's readings stand out was the rhythmic richness of their delivery. Though my Hungarian is worse than my Spanish (which is to say, nonexistent), these writers' attention to the sonic qualities of language kept me up-to-speed with the translation. In Bracho's case, a meditation on the qualities of water became a sexual rhapsody, all languorous vowels. By contrast, Esterhazy's reading - from his massive novel Celestial Harmonies - had the tempo of a drunken machine gunner. Oddly enough, his conversational rapidity made his long, contortionist sentences easy to follow. What emerged, above all, was the book's surreal comedy - what Joseph Mitchell called "graveyard humor."The owlish Annie Proulx, with her reading of Aidan Higgins' Langrishe, Go Down, may have outdone Esterhazy in polish, but Celestial Harmonies was the book I walked away burning to read.
Whatever they may have expected, what the Ambrose Akinmusire Quartet got was a night onstage before this cloud of witnesses. An otherwise unimaginable crowd in a country in the grip of a rumored war stopping to listen to a black man from Oakland and his band testify while the city burns away its edges.
Left to right: Ali Dayan Hasan, Basharat Peer, Selma Dabbagh, Mohammed Hanif, Lyse Doucet, with Arundhati Roy on screen. From the beginning, there was a hint of the surreal to the recent Lahore Literary Festival, but it was difficult to put my finger on the root of that unsettling emotion, especially given the overall aura of triumph. A response to similar events elsewhere in the region - the most famous in Jaipur; the most rivalry-inducing, for the last four years, in Karachi - the festival seemed its own victory party, a massive and successful gambit in Lahore’s bid to reclaim its title as the “cultural capital” of Pakistan. The excitement had Lahore full of visitors, Mall Road festooned with banners, the Alhamra Arts Council packed with people, and in the middle of all that buzz it seemed almost churlish to have the suspicion that something odd was at work. The urge to make every(positive)thing in Pakistan somehow momentous and meaningful is dangerous - every movie cannot offer a revitalization or renaissance of cinema, every political party cannot, at this point, be logically seen as a rebirth of hope - but there was some predictable truth to the truism that the festival played, in Lahore, a very different role than it would have in a country or a city where such events are more common and less fraught. In part of course this had to do with the unimaginable odds that Pakistan has been facing, not just the most dramatic and terrible (including for example two recent, devastating attacks on the Hazara community, in Quetta; including for example the murder of a prominent doctor and his twelve-year-old son, in broad daylight as they drove to the boy’s school -- located on the same Mall Road where we were gathered -- simply because they were Shia), but also the more subtle and insidious, which have been at work far longer than any terrorist. In part also the intensity of the enthusiasm had to do with the possibilities of literature in Pakistan, and with the great role that writers here can play. A month after “Jaipur” and a week after “Karachi,” the writers arrived “for Lahore,” and got the kind of reception that would greet the hypothetical combination of Tony Judt and Jay-Z: writers here combine the virtues and the functions of public intellectuals with those of celebrities. The ambiance at the Alhamra was like that which I imagine would surround a traveling circus, or one of those massive, star-studded concerts that travels the globe, with everyone eager to hear everything, see everything, learn everything. My uneasiness wasn’t because of the common criticisms of the festival, which are both obvious and, in the end, not completely relevant. Despite no admission cost and what one assumes were the best of intentions, the festival was largely if not entirely an elite event, focused mostly on those who read, write, and think in English (and those who read, write, and think about literature in English, which is a smaller subset anywhere in the world), those who were willing and eager to laugh at jokes about General Zia-ul-Haq’s possible prostate exams or the relative marginality of drunks, airheads, and homosexuals. The festival may have been an echo chamber in which an unconsciously but nonetheless carefully defined “we” could talk amongst ourselves for a moment - and so what? But it was only a weekend, and with so much packed into only three days, there was no way to be able to see everything: constant double-booking organized the chaos. All three of the Alhamra’s massive halls were almost constantly in use, and choosing whether to listen to Shehan Karunatilaka talk about Chinaman or a conversation between Daniyal Mueenuddin, Ebba Koch, Jeet Thayil, and H.M. Naqvi about “a sense of place” was like having to choose your favorite Beatle. In nearly every panel I attended, the houses were so full that people were sitting in aisles and standing on steps, or lurking just outside the doors, hoping to slip in if someone left to take a phone call. The audiences included gaggles of spiky-haired teenagers, flirtatious college students, grandparents, and babies who had no choice but to perch on parental knees, uncomprehending of anything but, perhaps, the import of the moment. Which everyone understood: more important than the generational cross-section was the excitement, the passion running through the discussions, the constant questions and answers that made panels run beyond their time limits. The city was, briefly, a salon, and everyone wanted to be invited. The festival’s most charming event was a conversation between two Urdu writers, the poet Zehra Nigah and Intizar Hussain, recently nominated for the Man Booker International Prize for his fiction. It was toward the end of the festival’s first busy day, and the massive, sloping hall was only half-full; most of the audience crowded into the front section, but as a preemptive measure, given the claustrophobia the day had induced, I climbed to the top. From that vantage point the room was like a cave, and far below me there were these two tiny figures; the only word that seemed appropriate for the two of them was “dignified.” Their ostensible topic was the translation of poetry, but after a few pro forma questions elicited only the obvious (poetry is harder to translate than prose; some translations are good, others are bad; translation is important), the moderator was wise enough to let them simply talk and reminisce about their work and about their lives, about a moment when a very different and almost-vanished literary culture was taken almost for granted. That was in some ways a hint, an explanation for the hysterical tinge to the laughter, the edge to the applause. The surreal feeling had in fact begun to crystallize earlier, at a panel on the “literature of resistance,” when organizers attempted to play a video message from Arundhati Roy. The screen flickered and the sardine-packed audience went quiet, even the panelists on stage turning to look as those wise wide eyes and that half-smile appeared behind them. After a few seconds of a penetrating stare, her lips began to move, but there were no words. Eventually, as if to fill in the silence, we began making those noises that accompany technological glitches, muttering that eventually bubbled into laughter as the wordless message ran once and then looped back to the beginning. In the interest of time, the moderator, Ali Dayan Hasan of Human Rights Watch, started the discussion under the still-running video, as though from Delhi Roy were looking down and keeping watch on us. After the conversation was over, technicians pulled off some backstage magic and got sound and video to sync up. Once again, that penetrating stare, now with someone behind the camera counting off “three, two, one,” and then there was a boy’s voice asking Arundhati Roy, “Is there any message you would like to give the festival-protest?” The awkward hyphenate made me think of how Roy described such double-barreled terms, when she found herself frequently described as a “writer-activist”: “Like a sofa-bed.” Her message sounded a cautionary note about the risk of “protest” becoming a “cool, middle-class acquisition - like an iPod,” the importance, for someone protesting, of clarifying both what you are protesting against and what you are protesting for - which is one of those ideas that is, particularly in circumstances in which there is plenty of both, obvious to the point of being forgotten. Her recommendation was to foreground the idea of “justice”; one of the panelists, Mohammed Hanif, made the equally obvious point that a festival, in the end, is really not a protest at all (except, perhaps, in the sense of the best revenge being living well). The idea stuck with me, though. The incredible urgency, the amazing passion, the unequivocal triumph of the festival - that happened because it was in fact a certain kind of protest. Victory, even if only in a battle rather than a war, comes from the risk of defeat, from having an opponent, and after that question was asked both seemed present, palpable, reasonable explanations for that feeling that had been hovering over my shoulder. So if we are going to clarify what it is we were perhaps protesting against, or at least one of the things - perhaps it was that this is a world under siege, that these are soldiers for whom victory can, in the end, only be pyrrhic. It turns out then that the setting was appropriate. On Lahore’s wide, tree-shaded Mall Road, which maintains some of its colonial-era grandeur despite the indignities of traffic and underpasses, the Alhamra buildings, completed in 1992, were designed by the architect Nayyar Ali Dada. He won several prizes for his work, and the complex is wonderful, those massive brick-clad halls studded in what seems almost a garden, full of winding paths and spontaneous courtyards. The automatic and in fact intentional association is to the Mughal buildings of old Lahore, the castles, the tombs, and, in particular, the fortresses: With their gates and high walls, with the imposing immensity of brick and stone, those fortresses were meant to be the places of last refuge. It was hard to shake the feeling that the same could be said of the Alhamra. Thus it is worth remembering the building’s namesake, that other old fortress in Spain. The Alhambra was the citadel of the final territory lost to the Catholic monarchs; its defeat was the sign of the end. It was of the Alhambra that the last of the kings, marching south to exile, turned to catch one final glimpse. Image credit: Ali Agha
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On Saturday, the night the lights came on, I turned mine off, rode the elevator to the ground floor of my building in Chelsea, and walked into the dark of the West Village. I had stayed in my apartment through Sandy and her aftermath, so for five days, downtown Manhattan’s standard storm week inconveniences were mine: no power, heat, or water. I counted myself lucky. My building didn’t flood. No children, old people, or dogs depended on my care. I had blankets, candles, flashlight; a bathtub full of water to keep the toilet working fine; money for cabs and food; and legs that didn’t mind the daily stairwell roundtrips to and from my 15th floor place. Having just finished a work project that consumed the previous weekends, I gave myself time off. I woke at dawn, ate supper when the sun set, and slept straight through the nights. My rest gorged on dark and quiet as if sleep were celebration, free from horns and big rigs, sirens, sidewalk screams and glare -- the gang that, most evenings, steals into my room and snaps my dreams in pieces. (From my windows, as far as I could see, the only Chelsea buildings where bulbs burned were Google headquarters and one floodlit chapel at the General Theological Seminary.) In daylight, I walked right up the middle of deserted streets, stopped to read plaques posted on historic buildings, my eyes slowly scanning back and forth from texts to bricks. I learned names of things -- corbels, lintels, eyebrow lintels -- that I had always, apparently, been too busy to see. Each day when I ventured uptown to shower at a gym, I saw life rush on as usual, and each day that experience raised an unsettling question in my mind. Which part of town was actually in the blackout? Electricity felt almost like a drug, every one of us a junkie. Jumpy people hurried in and out of brilliantly lit stores, buying things as if it were a birthright. All of us, it seemed, walked four feet off the ground, eyes focused on infinity, in the single-occupancy tunnels of perception that New Yorkers learn to build around ourselves, because we have to, so we can get where we want to go. I was as relieved as anyone when power was restored, but to my surprise, my bedside lamp triggered an immediate craving to go back down into the blackout zone, to see what powerless Manhattan looked like while it was still there to be seen. Near the top of the Village, on Greenwich Avenue, I walked southeast, drawn by a generator’s grinding buzz. A bar had set up a movie projector; Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown played on the broad side of the white semi-trailer parked across the street. Then I veered southwest into the warren of townhouse brownstones, where for whole blocks, every building looked empty, but what light there was, was warm. Here and there, two or three were gathered in front rooms of parlor floors, drinking wine, smoking, smiling. Further west, a tiny handful of restaurants stood open. Lit by candles, tables glowed with the soft surprise of Easter eggs. I tried taking pictures with my iPhone: black rectangle after black rectangle, specked with firefly flecks of light. Eventually, getting cold, I tacked back north. Cops directed traffic at 14th Street and Eighth Avenue, a makeshift gateway between have and have-not. At the edges of the crosswalk, red flares hissed on low tripods at foot level. Pausing there, I overheard a skinny young guy in sideways baseball cap and drop-crotch jeans talk on his cell phone -- “I don’t know where to go” -- and as I picked up my pace to pass him, a fat, limping woman, leaning on a stainless steel cane, stopped me to ask, “Where is Fourth Street?” She wore glasses, a purple flowered dress, and no coat. Even in the half-dark I could see she had bad teeth. I pointed back to where I’d come from and started to explain, when the young guy put his phone away and interrupted us. “I’m headed that way,” he told the woman. “I can show you.” Walking up Eighth Avenue, I turned for a moment to watch the skinny man take the fat lady where she needed to go. Then, with horn-blaring cars racing by, I built a tunnel around myself to get me home, and I wondered if this bright light on everything around me really always was so harsh. Photo courtesy of the author.